Notre Dame owns a proud distinction in this NCAA tournament: It is the only program to have advanced to the Elite Eight each of the past two years. The Fighting Irish also possess a more dubious trait: They are the tournament team most likely to singe off their fingertips pulling victory out of the fire.
The Irish advanced again Thursday in the opener of this tournament, enduring a 60-58 scrap against 12th-seeded Princeton, their seventh NCAA tournament victory since 2015. Notre Dame and Coach Mike Brey, who seemingly forgets to pack a razor every March, have become tournament fixtures. They have done so under constant duress.
Thursday afternoon provided just another dose of heart palpitations in South Bend. Notre Dame, the fifth seed in the West, appeared poised to advance in tame fashion, seizing an 11-point lead early in the second half. But Princeton continued to execute its deliberate offense, Notre Dame’s typically money free-throw shooters continued to brick freebies and the Tigers climbed back into it.
In the end, after another miss at the line when point guard Matt Farrell missed the front end of a one-and-one, Notre Dame had to watch Devin Cannady — a sophomore who grew up in Indiana, just around the corner from Notre Dame’s campus — heave an open three-pointer from the left wing that would have knocked it out. The ball clanged off the front rim, an inch from ending Notre Dame’s season.
“We’re thrilled to survive,” Brey said in a CBS interview. “We escaped today.”
That’s how Notre Dame operates in March. Last year, the Irish trailed by 12 at halftime before beating Michigan; trailed with two seconds left before Rex Pflueger’s tip-in downed Stephen F. Austin; and trailed by three with less than 30 seconds remaining before they topped Wisconsin in the Sweet 16. They could have lost any of those games, and probably should have lost the last two, but they survived.
“We’ve had an unbelievable run in close games,” Brey said. “I think we’re 18-3 in our last 21 overtime games. That shouldn’t happen — the law of averages. But we’ve been in so many of them, we really believe. And I think in this tournament, this nucleus of guys, just feel like as this thing was getting close, well, that’s what we did all last year. We just stole wins to get to the Elite Eight.”
Their first trip to the regional final wasn’t much different. Notre Dame made the second weekend in 2015 by beating Northeastern by three points and Butler by three in overtime. Their lone easy win came against Wichita State by 11 before they bowed out, memorably, against a then-undefeated Kentucky.
And so as Princeton came back in the second half and Notre Dame’s shots stopped falling? It may trigger nerves in other high seeds. Not among the Irish.
“It was something we’ve been through,” forward Bonzie Colson said. “We’ve been through a lot of those game situations. We’ve worked on it since summertime. So we walked in, and we knew what we had to do. They had big shots, but we stayed composed. We stayed locked in on defense and then on the offense end, we was still in our movement. They’re a good team, they have a lot of good movement, but we talked and we communicated. I think that was something that got us the win.”
The experience makes Notre Dame both vulnerable and dangerous. It probably will not blow out an opponent, which means it could lose any time. But it also has a roster of players comfortable with the late-game situations that define the tournament. Among current players, Steve Vasturia and Colson have played through all of those games. V.J. Beachem, Farrell and Pflueger all played key roles last season. There’s no team more accustomed to drama, and in the tournament that means something.